Amazon is bringing drone delivery to this California cowboy town


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LOCKEFORD, Calif. — Six months ago, Amazon contacted local officials in this rural town to let them know it planned to launch its long-awaited drone delivery service here.

But since last week – when Amazon made the news public – many residents of unincorporated Lockeford, with its vineyards, fruit stands and ranches, was still unaware of the plan.

An 82-year-old woman who lives directly across from the still-under-construction drone facility with her dog, horse, two ponies and small herd of goats said no one had told her about Amazon’s plans. So did two brothers busy converting the nearby winery they recently purchased into a marijuana farm.

A man at a local archery shop jokingly commented, “Target practice! when he discovered it.

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When Amazon announced last week that it would begin delivering packages via drones for the first time in the United States, the news took many Lockeford residents by surprise. Amazon often embarks on its projects in secrecy, using codenames and negotiating tax subsidies in secrecy, whether building data centers, corporate headquarters or new fulfillment centers. But the big reveal sometimes comes as a shock to locals, sparking fights between the tech giant and the communities it aims to woo.

In recent years, a Denver suburb, an island community on the Canadian border of New York, and a small town in Massachusetts have all rallied to stop Amazon’s development after news broke. In 2018, after a secret process to select New York as one of its second headquarters locations, it canceled the plan due to major setbacks. (Amazon is building its so-called HQ2 in Arlington, VA)

The team that chose Lockeford liked it because of its weather, rural topography, freeway access and existing customer base, a former Amazon employee who turned up told the Washington Post. expressed on condition of anonymity for the sake of retaliation. But the team also thought it was a good choice because there wouldn’t be too much bureaucracy.

It was “kind of cowboy and do whatever you want out there,” the person said.

The company said it started contacting residents within a four-mile radius of the site last week to find out who was interested in trying the program. Those who sign up will be able to choose from a selection of items under five pounds stocked in a small warehouse nearby. The drones, which are 6.5 feet wide and nearly 4 feet tall, are supposed to drop packages at a pre-determined location about 4 feet high.

There were a few caveats: San Joaquin County, home of Lockeford, is still processing its permits, and the company still needs to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

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But not all residents are ready to lay down the welcome mat.

“They invade our privacy,” said Tim Blighton, a cement contractor who lives near Lockeford and who said he once threatened to shoot down a neighbor’s drone flying over his house.

He worries about Amazon cameras peeking into his backyard. But Blighton added that he would not be interested in any type of delivery from Amazon, which he said “is going to destroy our mom and pop stores.”

“I’m not an Amazon guy,” Blighton said. “I think they will destroy everything for us.”

Amazon is cooperating with local authorities in Lockeford, company spokesman Av Zammit said, and is working to secure permits. The company’s drone “does not capture images from below as it flies to its delivery and return destination” and does not use this data for any other purpose. The drone project will also create new jobs.

One day, seeing Prime Air drones will be as normal as Prime delivery trucks, he said. “However,” he added, “if someone had shot down a drone, they would have broken the law.”

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, caused a stir when he announced the delivery of drones on 60 Minutes in 2013. But the company struggled to deliver on its promise, only making up to present only one drone delivery to Cambridge, England in 2016. before the team disbanded. In March 2020, Bloomberg reported, Amazon hired Boeing’s David Carbon to fast-track the project, and some employees objected to his approach. Former flight assistant Cheddi Skeete has publicly aired his safety concerns over Prime Air, which has experienced several drone crashes during test flights, including one in Oregon that sparked a 25-year-old fire. acres.

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Amazon tried to circumvent regulations and avoid FAA inspections following crashes, Business Insider reported last month. Asked if clashes between the agency and the company over its test site in Oregon could delay the launch of the drone, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency “does not comment on pending certification projects or discussions with companies”.

Amazon’s Zammit said the company’s drones are tested in a “closed private facility” and “no one has ever been harmed or injured as a result of these flights.” Lockeford’s deliveries will not be experimental, he added, and will be offered under an FAA Air Operator’s Certificate to ensure the program meets the agency’s “high security bar.” The company also works closely with local authorities.

The former Amazon employee familiar with Prime Air said the team was under pressure to make some deliveries this year or the future of the project could be in jeopardy. Amazon denies this.

Some Lockeford residents said it might make sense to them. “I have plenty of room, why not? said Tracy Clarke, a local Amazon customer who said she orders just about everything from the site.

Pam Coleman, who lives on a nearly 30-acre property not far from Lockeford, said the nearest town had few amenities. “Maybe it’s better in places like that,” she said.

Others were mixed. Greg Baroni is an Amazon customer who lives close enough to sign up for drone delivery. But he said Amazon delivers packages to his house fairly quickly.

“I don’t think drones are necessary,” he told the Post. “They’re taking jobs away from people who are looking.”

Like Blighton, the idea of ​​drones made him uncomfortable. “I don’t want drones flying around my house – we live in the countryside,” he said.

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The property where Prime Air will be based, which Amazon is leasing from a local concrete producer, was already zoned for distribution, according to county spokeswoman Stephanie Yoder. The county said the company is currently in the process of obtaining the appropriate construction and operating permits, adding that it will also undergo environmental review through the FAA.

Amazon has a team that interfaces with local governments to ensure the community is open to its presence, the former employee said. It can also be difficult to convince customers to participate in a program that limits what they can order and requires coordination with Amazon.

“It’s painful,” added the employee. Amazon spokesman Zammit said customers will be able to order packages for drone delivery in the usual way.

Amazon also announced plans to bring drone delivery to College Station, Texas, where the city council is due to vote on the plan on July 14. But at a zoning commission meeting last week, members of the public raised concerns about safety and noise, including Resident Amina Alikhan, who said if Lockeford was willing to try first drone delivery, College Station should “let them be the test site.”

But in Lockeford, many residents were surprised to learn that their rural farming town had been chosen for Amazon’s program.

“I have a large amount of cattle and horses, and a drone would easily scare the animals away,” Naydeene Koster said. “Horses run straight through barbed wire, or really any type of fence when they think they’re in danger. I have seen horses commit suicide on top of a flying balloon, I would hate to see the damage a flying drone would cause by entering their area.

“Lockeford is an old farming town made up mostly of old ranches,” she continued. “So the idea of ​​this new technology invading your privacy while potentially scaring your pets is pretty scary to many here.”

Amazon’s Zammit said the company has worked to keep noise down and “will work hard to minimize any potential disruption.”

Lockeford resident Joy Huffman said her daughters order so much from Amazon that she receives a package almost every day. Still, she isn’t sure whether to volunteer for the program. “I wonder how it will work out,” she said. “Let’s hope the drone puts it in the right yard.”

“I don’t like people’s jobs being taken away,” said Jennifer Hoy, who moved to Lockeford from nearby Lodi about a year ago. “But I want to check it out – I’d like to see what it looks like.”

But there are also those for whom Amazon, whether delivered by human or drone, is a non-starter.

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“My stepson used to work for them, they don’t treat their employees well,” said Jay Jiminez, who stopped to pick up sausages in Lockeford on Wednesday afternoon. “If I go to order something and see it says Amazon, I pass it by.”

A man watering his garden just down the road from Amazon’s future drone launch site was also concerned about Amazon’s poor reputation as an employer.

The man, who declined to be named, said his wife regularly orders from Amazon. When asked if he would sign up for the drone experience, he shook his head.

“They already have too much money and too much power,” he added.

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